Friday, May 8, 2009

Pompeii: Phallustown

Our readers group chose Mary Beard's The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found to discuss at our June meeting.  (The person who suggested it will soon be there.)   Until I read Beard, I did not know that the motif of Pompeii was the erect phallus.  "Cock City," a friend said.  There are penis frescos, reliefs, statues, mosaics, penises carved into paving stones, penises on shop signs, winged penis pendants with bells.  If I ever thought I could understand an ancient culture, I don't think so now. 
The interpretations of Pompeii's ubiquitous penises are silly: symbols of hospitality or abundance.  Whatever they were, there were more depictions of phalluses in Pompeii than Chinese restaurants in Chinatown.  If as some say, they indicate a phallo-centric society, it was a society that often found the erect penis ridiculous, amusing, grotesque.  On a mosaic in an entryway to the baths of a grand villa a penis winks from under a toga.  

When the Monica and Bill story broke, my neighbor shouted, "How do I explain that to my kids?"  The residents of Pompeii might have difficulty explaining some things to their children, but not the male anatomy or the irrepressible vigor of the body.

Close by the statues and frescos of the Lares, the guardian spirits of the household (second picture above left) clothed and handsome, were the grotesque figures of fun. Abundant? Certainly.  They were everywhere.  


  1. Great post. So glad you have chosen Pompeii. Do hope you all enjoy!
    If you have any questions, or comments I need to know, do get in touch on my Cambridge university email account (easy to get from the Cambridge Classics Faculty website or the from of the TLS).
    Mary Beard

  2. Thank you, Mary Beard. I'll forward your comment to the group, all writers based in Cambridge, Massachusetts or near it. I've been enjoying your lively book with its new well-reasoned theory: many residents' paying attention to warnings and fleeing before the disaster. The details you include are so vivid, among them, the amount of money carried by people who tried to flee but did not make it.

  3. I love the idea of the penis representing hospitality. It was nice to be able to talk to you about this post yesterday and compare notes about our visits to Pompeii long before all these signs were present, when the watchman was bribed to open the door of a small niche hiding a statue with a huge phallus.

  4. Yes, Mellissa, that is just how I remember it in 1965.